Santana Celebrates Africa On Seductive New Studio Album

Deep in the jungle, beyond the reach of greed/You hear the voices of spirits/With their frequency of light/Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night/Communicating with plants, animals and mankind/Affirming the universal truth…All and everything was conceived here in Africa/The cradle of civilization. These words, spoken by Carlos Santana, are the intro to his new album Africa Speaks that was released yesterday. After having listened to it for a couple of times, I’m pretty excited about the infectious grooves and Carlos’ guitar-playing, which continues to amaze me. This record is made for summer!

Appearing on Concord Records, Africa Speaks is Santana’s 25th studio album and his first with producer Rick Rubin. It was recorded together with Santana’s band at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The record also features two female singers with African heritage: Spanish vocalist María Concepción Balboa Buika, who goes by Buika, and on one track British singer Laura Mvula. Santana’s website characterizes the music as inspired by the melodies, sounds and rhythms of Africa, but in many ways, this is a classic Santana album combining Latin Afro-Cuban rhythms with Carlos’ mighty signature guitar sound.

Carlos Santana

In January, Santana told this to Rolling Stone about the upcoming album, which then was supposed to be titled Global Revelation: “I went to Rick to see if he would, as Miles Davis would say, ‘Would you have eyes to do something with me? I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the opener Africa Speaks. The tune has a bit of a mysterious vibe to it. I also like how it builds. And once Santana comes in with his great guitar sound, man, the track just takes off!

Oye Este Mi Canto starts with a smooth laid back Latin jazz feel to it, with Buika shining on vocals. Then check out what happens at around 2 minutes and 28 seconds: Things pick up, with Santana coming in playing a great wah-wah guitar solo. And all for a sudden, it feels like going back 50 years to Woodstock. Then at around 3 minutes and 50 seconds, the song resumes its initial groove – so cool!

Here’s Blue Skies, the track featuring Laura Mvula, who is sharing vocals with Buika. Not sure why Apple Music and YouTube don’t mention her – either an embarrassing oversight or outright disrespectful!

Paraísos Quemados is one of my favorite tunes on the album. I just dig the funky groove and the excellent bassline by Benny Rietveld. As a Hammond fan, I also like what David K. Mathews is doing on the keys. Oh, and did I mention Carlos on guitar?

The last track I’d like to highlight is Breaking Down The Door, which according to a Rolling Stone review is a cover of the Calypso Rose song Abatina, written by Manu Chao. Another nice tune that perhaps is a bit more conventional compared to most other tracks that have more of a fusion feel to it.

This review would be incomplete without acknowledging Santana’s excellent backing band. In addition to the above mentioned bassist and keyboarder Rietveld and Mathews, respectively, the line-up features Carlos’ wife Cindy Blackman Santana (drums),  Tommy Anthony (guitars and vocals), Andy Vargas and Ray Greene (both vocals), as well as percussionists Karl Perazzo and Paoli Mejías.

So what does Rick Rubin think about the album and its making? “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said during a filmed conversation. “Hearing it on record is one thing, but being in the room and watching it happen was another. I couldn’t imagine anyone who loves music sitting in the position I was in watching this not being blown away.”

“Carlos asked to meet and I had never met him before. He said he wanted to go into to the studio and start recording. And I said, ‘well, let’s talk about the songs and let’s listen to songs’ and he said, ‘well, I don’t really have any songs.’ And I said, ‘okay, interesting,’ and he said, ‘well, I have an idea.’ He played me some pieces of music and then he sent me an iPod filled with African music. And he said, ‘live with this for a little bit and then we’ll talk about it.’ I lived with it and it was fantastic!”

“And he said, ‘I think that’s the energy of what I wanna do, and I wanna start by jamming with the band, using these kinds of rhythms and see where it goes.’ Very unusual to work for me in that way. Usually, the song comes first, and the studio is more about documenting the thing we already know how it’s gonna go. In in this case, it was really, we went to the studio completely blank, jamming on these instrumental pieces, and it was really great – really, really great!” You can watch the full clip here.

I have to say this album has reignited my enthusiasm about Carlos Santana and makes me feel like seeing again.  There would definitely be opportunity this year. Later this month, Santana is embarking on a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his 1999 Supernatural studio album. While it definitely resulted in a resurgence of his career, I’m not particularly fond of this record and much prefer his first three albums with the classic Santana band. Santana is also playing two Woodstock-related festivals in August, which I likely can’t afford. But he told People he is planning a series of dates next year to support his new album. Now, that may be something worthwhile looking into.

Sources: Wikipedia, Santana website, Rolling Stone, People, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band/Bobby Jean

Two days ago (June 4) marked the 35th anniversary of the release of Born In The U.S.A.  by Bruce Springsteen, so it felt right to celebrate the occasion with this great live clip of Bobby Jean. Recorded with The E Street Band, Springsteen’s seventh studio album remains his biggest commercial success to this day, with more than 30 million copies sold as of 2012.

Yes, this is The Boss at his most mainstream/pop-oriented and stylistically couldn’t be a bigger contrast to predecessor Nebraska. While it’s not my favorite Springsteen album, Born In The U.S.A. was my introduction to him, and I remain fond of it. Unlike many other records from the same period, I also feel it’s holding up pretty well.

Like all tracks on the album, Bobbie Jean was written by Springsteen. It’s among the tunes I like the most on the record, in part because of the great saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons. The Big Man just was a beast of a sax player. I was fortunate to see him in action live during a 1988 Springsteen show in Frankfurt, Germany – an unforgettable experience!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Returns With Great New Album

Kenny Wayne Shepherd first entered my radar screen about two years ago with the release of his eighth studio album Lay It On Down, which I covered here at the time. Now, the Louisiana guitarist is back with The Traveler. While Shepherd’s music remains anchored in blues rock, his latest release also offers flavors of country, Southern and straight rock. No matter how you characterize it, this record simply presents fun music by a great guitarist who also proves he’s a pretty talented songwriter.

For quick background on Shepherd, I’m quoting from his website: “In a 20-year recording career that began when he was just 16, Shepherd has established himself as an immensely popular recording artist, a consistently in-demand live act and an influential force in a worldwide resurgence of interest in the blues…At 16 years old, he signed his first record deal and burst onto the national scene with the release of his 1995 debut album Ledbetter Heights…In 2013, Shepherd further expanded his musical horizons by teaming with veteran rockers Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg to form THE RIDES, whose first album Can’t Get Enough helped to expand Shepherd’s audience as well as his musical resume.”

Released last Friday, May 31, The Traveler is the Shepherd’s ninth studio album. Eight of the ten tracks are originals written by Shepherd. In addition to playing guitar, he shares lead vocals with Noah Hunt, who has been part of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band since 1997. The other members include drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton, a co-founding member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s backing band Double Trouble; Joe Krown  and Jimmy McGorman (both keyboards) and Scott Nelson (bass). The Traveler appears on Concord Records and was co-produced by Shepherd and Marshall Altman with whom Shepherd also worked on his previous two albums. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Woman Like You, a catchy blues rocker with some nice horn accents, featuring Hunt on lead vocals.

Long Time Running is another great rock tune with horns and Hunt singing lead.

I Want You combines a classic blues riff, great horn fills and a more contemporary drum sound. Here, Shepherd is also handling lead vocals. It is one of the few tunes where he is playing a more extended guitar solo, something that is largely absent on the other tracks.

On Tailwind, a Southern rock style, acoustic-oriented tune, the band is slowing things down. Once again, Hunt is providing lead vocals

The Traveler also includes two covers: Joe Walsh’s Turn To Stone and Buffalo Springfield’s Mr. Soul written by Neil Young. As a big Neil fan, I couldn’t resist the latter. With the dominant horns, it’s a pretty cool version, in my opinion.

“I like albums to have their own identity, and I don’t want to be one of those artists where you know what it’s going to sound like before you even hear it,” Shepherd stated. “I want the new material to be original and give the listener something different. A lot of these songs represent stories I’ve picked up on the road, and the experiences we’ve had along the way.”

“The main thing is to catch the essence of the live shows,” Shepherd further pointed out. “We’re a live band, and when people listen to our records, I want them to hear what we sound like when we play live. As far as my playing goes, I’m still refining my approach, and learning that it’s not about showing off or how flashy you can play. It’s about serving the song and playing what’s right emotionally. I want to move people in the depths of their souls, and to stir my own spirit. The only way I know how to do that is to get everyone recording together in the same room, and everyone’s making eye contact. That’s how spontaneous moments happen.”

Shepherd and his band are busy touring the U.S. and Europe for the remainder of the year. Most of the U.S. dates are with Buddy Guy – damn, this should be an awesome show! Some of the upcoming gigs include Flagstaff, Ariz. (Jun 8); Cincinnati (Jun 16) ; Red Bank, N.J. (Jun 18) – dangerously close to my house – and East Providence, R.I. (Jun 21). Starting toward the end of the month, Shepherd is playing a series of concerts in Europe before returning to the U.S. in late July. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Kenny Wayne Shepherd website, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Facebook page, Glide Magazine, YouTube

Pix and Clips: Keb’ Mo’/This Is My Home

I just spotted this beautiful tune and clip by Keb’ Mo’. Since his fantastic collaboration album with Taj Mahal TajMo and seeing the two artists in August 2017 during the tour that supported the record, I’ve come to dig Mo’.

Co-written by Mo’ and John Lewis Parker, This Is My Home is from Mo’s upcoming new album Oklahoma, which is set for release on June 14. “This Is My Home is a love story about people making their way in a changing world,” Mo’ commented. “Immigrant, enslaved or native, we all have a story and a history.”

To me, the lyrics go to the heart and soul of what America has traditionally stood for. Nowadays, unfortunately, this philosophy seems to be in danger. But in countries that have free elections, it’s up to the people to decide what kind of leaders and country they want to have.

Lupe came here from Mexico
About 3 or 4 years go
And the journey, the journey, the journey was long
She got a job at a local factory
Sent money back home to her family
She said, “This is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong”

A man arrives from Pakistan
A stranger in the promised land
Mohammed, Mohammed was finally free
He drove day and night in a taxi cab
When people got mean
He didn’t get mad
He knew, this is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong

La la la la la la…

Lupe had school on Monday night
When a man walked in who looked just right
Mohammed and Lupe were falling in love
Well they raised a beautiful family
Taught them all their history
They know, this is where they belong
This is their home
This is where they belong

My people came over from Africa
To North and South America
And the journey, the journey, the journey was long
They sacrificed and they paid the price
So I could live this wonderful life
And I know, this is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong

La la la la la la…

This is where I belong
This is my home
This is where I belong

Sources: Facebook, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Jimmie Vaughan/Baby, Please Come Home

Lately, I’ve been listening to blues music quite a lot. In part, it’s thanks to fellow music blogger Music Enthusiast and his recent New Music Review that featured two excellent artists, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Big Daddy Wilson. The other part is my own curiosity, which led me back to the Billboard Blues Albums chart where the other day I had spotted a surprising entry: a collection of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry covers by George Benson. This time, I came across Baby, Please Come Home, another great covers album by an old hand of Texas blues: Jimmie Vaughan.

Other than the fact that Jimmie is the older brother of electric blues dynamo Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my long-time favorite blues guitarists, admittedly, I knew next to nothing about Jimmie, so had to read up a little. But that happens to be one of the aspects I particularly enjoy about music blogging – learning about new artists and their music. Yes, this can be time-consuming, but I’m not in a hurry. Most importantly, it would be far less fun if I would only write about stuff I knew!

Jimmy Vaughan

Jimmie Vaughan was born on March 20, 1951 in the Dallas area, about three and a half years prior to his brother Stephen Ray. He started playing the guitar as a child and in fact inspired his younger brother to pick up the instrument as well. At the age of 19, Jimmie moved to Austin and played in different blues bar bands for some time. In 1972, he formed his own group, The Storm, which backed many touring blues artists. Two years later, he co-founded The Fabulous Thunderbirds with harmonica player Kim Wilson. While the T-Birds gained a strong fan base in Texas, their first four albums didn’t sell well, and by the end of 1982 their record company Chrysalis had dropped them.

Meanwhile, Stevie Ray Vaughan broke through and became a dominating force in the Texas and national blues scene. It took the T-Birds until 1986 to score a success with their fifth studio album Tough Enuff. The record featured more of a mainstream sound, an approach the band replicated on their next two albums. Unhappy about the commercial direction the T-Birds had taken, Jimmie left in 1990 and recorded an album with his brother, Family Style. It came out one month after Stevie Ray’s untimely death in a helicopter crash under the name The Vaughan Brothers.

Jimmie & Stevie Ray Vaughan
Jimmie Vaughan (left) with his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan

Jimmie’s solo debut Strange Pleasure appeared in 1994. He hasn’t been exactly prolific since then, sometimes leaving many years in-between releasing new studio records and focusing on touring and guest-appearing on albums by other artists. Baby, Please Come Home, which was mostly recorded at Fire Station Studio in San Marcos, Texas, came out on May 17 on the Last Music Co. label. It features deeper cuts from a variety of different artists, such as Lloyd Price, T-Bone Walker, Etta James, Fats Domino and Jimmy Reed. Let’s get to some music.

Here is the opener and title track of the album. The tune was written by Lloyd Price and released as a single in 1955. Often called “Mr. Personality,” after his 1959 million-seller Personality, the R&B singer from Louisiana is also known for Lawdy Miss Clawdy, a song he recorded in 1952, featuring Fats Domino on piano. I just dig the horn section and the cool retro sound on Baby, Please Come Home, which is present throughout this 11-tune collection.

No One To Talk To (But The Blues) is a song by country music singer-songwriter Lefty Frizzell, which he recorded in 1957 as a single with country and rockabilly vocalist  Shirley Caddell, who later became known as Shirley Collie Nelson. From 1963 until 1971, she was married to Willie Nelson.

Another great tune, and frankly I could have selected any other track, is What’s Your Name?  That song was written by blues, R&B and rock & roll singer Chuck Willis and appeared as a single in 1953.

Next up: I’m Still In Love With You by T-Bone Walker, one of Vaughan’s guitar influences. Co-written by Walker and Charles Glenn, the ballad was released by Walker with Marl Young And His Orchestra in 1945. From what I have heard thus far, Jimmie is more of an old-style pre-Jimi Hendrix type blues guitarist whereas his younger brother clearly embraced the virtuosity and sound of Hendrix.

The last track I’d like to highlight is So Glad by Fats Domino, which first appeared on his 1963 album Walking To New Orleans. The song was co-credited to Domino and his musical collaborator Dave Bartholomew.

In addition to playing guitar, Vaughan is also handling all lead vocals, something I understand he hasn’t always done. While I think it’s fair to say he’s a better guitar player than a singer, his vocals go well with the music. Vaughan is backed by outstanding musicians, with some of whom he has worked for a long time: George Rains (drums), Ronnie James (bass), Billy Pittman (rhythm guitar), Mike Flanigan (Hammond B3), T. Jarrod Bonta (piano), Greg Piccolo (tenor saxophone), Doug James (baritone saxophone), Randy Zimmerman (trombone) and Jimmy Shortell (trumpet), as well as the Texas horns: Kaz Kazanoff (tenor saxophone), John Mills (baritone saxophone) and Al Gomez (trumpet). The record also features guest vocalists Georgia Bramhall and Emily Gimble.

Commenting on the eclectic mix of tracks, Vaughan told Guitar World, “When I was young, I didn’t really pay much attention to categories of music. I just heard what I liked and decided to explore that. And that’s really what I’m still doing.” The result is a great-sounding. old style blues record I find very enjoyable. I also agree with one review I read that it was not Vaughan’s goal to make a hit record but simply play music he loves. That being said, the album is currently at no. 2 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart. No. 1, by the way, is Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with his eponymous debut – that 20-year-old blues guitarist and singer from Clarksdale, Miss is just dynamite!

Vaughan is going on the road starting June 19 in Atlanta, and playing what mostly look like smaller venues. Now, that could be fun – I know I’ve been saying I need to restrain myself investing in concerts, but seeing Vaughan up and close in some intimate venue probably would be a great experience! Some of the other dates include Cleveland (Jun 26); Austin, Texas (Jul 6); Boston (Jul 16); Washington, D.C. (Jul 20); Los Angeles (Aug 7); and San Francisco (Sep 11). The last current gig is in Dallas on Sep 21. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple Music, Jimmie Vaughan website, Guitar World, YouTube